Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The more the State of the Union changes, the themes stay the same

By Xuan Thai, CNN White House Producer
Click to play
State of the Union address highlights
  • Different presidents stress common themes with their State of the Union addresses
  • Obama's call for civility in politics is not a new concept in Washington
  • Presidents Reagan, Adams, along with Obama, voiced concerns over federal deficit

Washington (CNN) -- Shortly after losing the majority in the House during the midterm elections, can you guess what president said, "There are ways of disagreeing; men who differ can still work together sincerely for the common good. We shall be risking the nation's safety and destroying our opportunities for progress if we do not settle any disagreements in this spirit..."

Was it President Obama after the "shellacking" his party took last November or maybe President George W. Bush after his party lost control of both the House and Senate in 2006? It was neither.

It was President Truman, whose party lost the majority in the House of Representatives just before his State of the Union Address in 1951.

It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. For all the pomp and circumstance, buzz and frenzy that surrounds the president's State of the Union address, there seems to be common themes from president to president over time. Here are a few:

How well did Obama perform in speech?
Grading Obama's 'SOTU' performance
Analyzing viewers' reactions to address
Obama: Fight for peace is universal


After the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, two weeks ago, the call arose for civility in politics, but the buzz on polite political discourse isn't new. Not only did Truman address this very issue but presidents since then have, too.

In 2007, Bush said on the topic, "The last time I visited the Capitol, I came to take an oath on the steps of this building. I pledged to honor our Constitution and laws. And I asked you to join me in setting a tone of civility and respect in Washington."

Before Bush's speech, there was President Clinton in 1994, when he suffered big losses in the House of Representatives.

"Our civil life is suffering in America today. Citizens are working together less and shouting at each other more," Clinton continued. "The common bonds of community which have been the great strength of our country from its very beginning are badly frayed."

President Clinton repeated his call for civility in 1999 when he said, "Mr. Speaker, at your swearing-in, you asked us all to work together in a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Mr. Speaker, let's do exactly that."

Obama will surely not be last. On Tuesday, he said, "Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -- something more consequential than party or political preference."

Health care

Health care isn't a recent hot button issue for Americans. Shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson's fight to introduce his Medicare program, he spoke of it during his State of the Union address in 1966.

"Greatness requires not only an educated people but a healthy people," he said. "In addition, regional medical centers can provide the most advanced diagnosis and treatment for heart disease and cancer and stroke and other major diseases. New support for medical and dental education will provide the trained people to apply our knowledge. Community centers can help the mentally ill and improve health care for school-age children from poor families, including services for the mentally retarded."

President Carter discussed it in his 1981 address. "During my administration, I proposed to Congress a National Health Plan which will enable the country to reach the goal of comprehensive, universal health care coverage."

In his 2000 State of the Union address, President Clinton discussed it too saying, "We will assure quality, affordable health care for all Americans."

Republican presidents weren't immune to discussing the topic. Bush talked about affordable health care in his 2007 address. "Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making healthcare affordable for more Americans," he said.

The deficit

President Reagan wasn't the first president to be concerned about the federal deficit. Since the infancy of the country, presidents have fretted it. The nation's second president, John Adams, addressed it during his State of the Union address in 1797.

"It is my duty to recommend to your serious consideration those objects which by the Constitution are placed particularly within your sphere  the national debts and taxes, he said. "The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own."

Obama spoke about it again during this year's address saying, "We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper."

Obama proposes spending freeze
Gergen, Fleischer square off on cuts
Proof of the American dream
Obama on jobs: 'The rules have changed'


The importance of education goes back to the first president. George Washington wrote in his address, "... the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter well deserves attention."

In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes used a large portion of his State of the Union to address education, and specifically that of American Indian children -- a particularly hot topic of the day.

Through time, George W. Bush spoke of his No Child Left Behind Act and on Tuesday, Obama was still discussing it.

"Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success," he said. "But if we want to win the future -- if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -- then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

The military

Since there has been a State of the Union, military spending has been a key topic. In the very first State of the Union in 1790, Washington discussed the need to support the troops in a fiscally sound manner.

"The arrangements which may be made respecting it, it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the officers and soldiers with a due regard to economy," wrote Washington [in those days, the State of the Union was written and delivered to Congress].

All the way through to President Obama, though his reference is tinged with a little more politics.

"Our troops come from every corner of this country -- they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. "

The list of themes that were once old but new again is long. If you can think of a topic, it's probably already been addressed.

Nuclear weapons? Check, Truman discussed that one of his address. International trade? You bet -- President James Polk in 1847 discussed the topic. America's competitiveness? Reagan hit that topic in 1983.

Even the issue of the post office running on a deficit is not new -- President Andrew Jackson discussed it in his 1834 address.

Part of complete coverage on
Did Obama get his message across?
President Obama delivered a 61-minute State of the Union address with a new theme -- putting his emphasis on investing in making America's economy more competitive in a challenging world.
Similar State of the Union themes
Different presidents stress common themes with their State of the Union addresses.
Obama outlines plan to 'win the future'
Sounding a theme of unity, President Obama called for investment in education and clean energy and a freeze in some spending.
What's a 'Sputnik' moment?
President Obama said this generation's "Sputnik moment" has arrived, but what exactly did he mean?
State of the Union trivia
Here are a few facts about the president's annual address to Congress that probably won't show up in the headlines.
Quiz: State of the Union knowledge
President Obama's speech will be the nation's 222nd annual address. How much do you know about the previous speeches?
How State of the Union became a prom
Donna Brazile says it's a good sign that members of Congress are looking across the aisle for seatmates from the opposing party.
Notable messages from Lincoln to Bush
The tradition of the State of the Union address dates to 1790. Here are some of the messages in history.